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May 17, 2006 Wednesday 12:15 PM EST

LENGTH: 760 words

HEADLINE: McGovern rallies for hunger initiative




Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., can never forget the televised 1960s image of a young Southern boy who stood empty-handed and penniless on the edge of his school cafeteria as his friends ate school lunch. A CBS TV reporter approached the boy, asking him how it felt. The boy's words -- "I'm ashamed, I ain't got any money" -- became the turning point in the senator's campaign against hunger.

"I remember saying to my daughters, who were watching the program with me, it's not that little guy who should be ashamed -- it's George McGovern," the former Democratic presidential candidate, 83, told United Press International Tuesday.

"I was a U.S. senator on the Senate Agriculture Committee, engaged in feeding hungry people abroad, and I didn't even know if you don't have money for lunch (in the United States), you didn't eat," said McGovern, also the first United Nations global ambassador on hunger.

The day after the program aired, McGovern went to the Senate floor and proposed a select committee on U.S. malnutrition and hunger. The committee led to the 1966 National Child Nutrition Act, which started the National School Lunch Program. For the first time, every child who needed lunch could get it.

Forty years later, 29 million kids participate in the school lunch program -- yet only 9 million take part in the federal School Breakfast Program, which sits on $300 million to $400 million in unused funds because schools choose not to take part, McGovern said.

In response, McGovern, along with former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., became a spokesperson for the Got Breakfast? campaign, launched in December 2005 to provide breakfast for the 14 million U.S. children who often go hungry. Hunger relief organizations, such as Share our Strength and Alliance to End Hunger, as well as the National Dairy Council, are supporting the effort.

East Side Entrees, a producer of nutritional, child-friendly foods, has also joined the initiative with Breakfast Breaks, a breakfast package for children. The package, which contains a bowl of cereal, juice and a snack, is shelf-stable, so kids can eat it on the bus or in the classroom.

"The fortieth anniversary of the school breakfast program is this fall, but why are we not reaching all these children for breakfast?" said Gary A. Davis, chief executive officer of East Side Entrees. "This program is in place, the need is there, but the message still needs to get out."

Without breakfast, studies have shown kids do poorly in school, act up more in class and even have trouble with social skills -- along with the lack of key nutrients for developing bodies.

Kids often opt out of school breakfast because of the stigma associated with hand-outs: No one wants to be that needy kid. But a breakfast package could help kids avoid the cafeteria and allow them to eat at their own convenience, Davis said.

Schools are also to blame. Many school officials assume parents will feed kids at home, an increasingly difficult feat in the rushed atmosphere of most homes. Gone are the days when families sit around the table at 7 a.m. to have a civilized breakfast.

Yet, even that attitude is changing: "Schools are more readily recognizing they're responsible for these kids during school hours," McGovern said. That means providing a breakfast, lunch and after-school snack.

Of course, sometimes kids would rather chat with friends than eat breakfast -- and that's where parents come in, to instill advice on what best to eat.

For low-income parents, the breakfast and lunch programs are critical to their survival, said Patricia Bland Nicklin, director of Share our Strength. "This is incredibly important to their economics as a family -- it allows them to focus on rent and healthcare," Nicklin said.

Nicklin also pointed to the good news -- over the years, the United States has made a big dent in childhood hunger. Got Breakfast? already has reached 175 school districts and expects to reach 325 by September 2006. The school system of Newark, N.J., recently was awarded the Got Breakfast? award for making a goal of feeding nearly 100 percent of their kids.

Even so, breakfast -- the most important meal of the day -- continues to be the most neglected.

"If you go up to Capitol Hill, you'll find an acceptance of the ideas we're talking about," McGovern said. "But the problem is not Congress anymore -- it's getting the school boards, the (PTAs) and the teachers to see the availability of the program, and why it's a matter of great importance to people who want to improve our education."